Life and Breath

This morning, I had the pleasure of speaking at the morning prayer service in Memorial Church within Harvard Yard.  Here are my remarks.

This morning I would like to speak on Luke 23:46

“Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said,

‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’

Having said this, he breathed his last.”

Alas, the New Revised Standard Version,

which I just read,

does violence to the meaning of the passage.

In Greek, the word for “breathed his last” is ἐκπνέω.

It means to exhale, particularly to surrender your last breath.

We hear it in the Latin translation, exspirare,

from which we get the word “expire.”

We can also hear it in the memorable phrase

from the King James Version:

“to give up the ghost.”

So, for our purposes this morning,

it would make more sense to translate it thus:

“Jesus said, ‘Father, I entrust my breath to you.’

And having said this, he released his breath.”

Or “‘Father I entrust my life to you.’

Having said this, he let go his life.”


There is this amazing ambiguity between life and breath and spirit.

Even the word soul means nothing more than “having breath in”

by some accounts.

That appears to be the history of the words for soul:

psyche (yuch) in Greek and

nephesh (נפש) in Hebrew.


“Giving up the Ghost,” was not just a euphemism for death;

it expressed a biological theory about how life worked.

It spoke to how the Greeks thought life differed from non-life.



My research focuses on the history of definitions of life

in science and theology.

And I find this a fascinating etymology,

mostly because it suggests that the writers of scripture

thought about soul and life in a very different way

than we do now.

Life was not considered a property of an object,

but participation in a process.


It remains clear in Genesis 1, where God breathes life into the dust,

making the first human,

But we forget that this is the same breath of God

that constitutes the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit.

The dust is not mine in any special way;

it’s just atoms.

Neither is the breath uniquely mine.

rather, it is God breathing in the world.

“I” insofar as I exist, am a strange hybrid of ubiquitous matter

and Divine Spirit.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he says,

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”

We are alive, we are ensouled,

because we are grafted on to God’s life.

We all breathe the same air.

We all share the same breath.


The interesting question arises when we try to differentiate

individual life from common life.

We have this strange ability to consume atoms

and turn them into “us.”

For me, this is one of the central mysteries of biology.

How do I turn that which is not me

into me?

How do animals and plants and bacteria,

and every other living thing,

convert the environment into the self?

Are there even discrete organisms worthy of study,

or just one continuous chemical process?

Scientific definitions of life as an adaptive or anti-entropic

system flirt with this very kind of continuity.



Common life is also one of the central mysteries of Christianity,

for Jesus speaks of us all being one,

and Paul speaks of us as individual members of the one body of Christ.

I would suggest that the scientific and theological questions

are not as different as we might think they are

even though we approach them in very different ways.


You have the breath of life within you.

You do these things, knowingly and unknowingly.


And so, I will leave you with these questions:

Where are the boundaries between your life

and the life of your neighbor?

Where does your breath end and theirs begin?

And to whom would you commend your spirit?


 God of Life, in the beginning your breath swept over the face of the waters; in Christ you lived and breathed as one of us; your Spirit moves still; grant us peace to move with the wind and courage to follow where it blows, in Jesus name.  Amen.


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